Saturday, November 17, 2018

Don't Screw This Up

Democrats won a 37 or 38 seat majority in the House of Representatives, and are poised to assert a counter presence to the current regime of authoritarian self-destruction, corruption and stupidity.  If they can only stop from destroying themselves before the session even begins.

Democrats in the House have one decision to make between now and the start of the session, and that should be a very simple one: vote to make Nancy Pelosi the Speaker of the House.  Right now however, these Democrats seem to be stumbling towards a tragic mistake.

Democrats are without an effective national leader, which is a dangerous situation right now.  President Obama is still their leader in some respects, but he is not in office.  Chuck Shumer will remain the minority leader in the Senate, where he has been dismally ineffective.  Nancy Pelosi has been and will be the most effective leader the Democrats have.  It is imperative that she be made Speaker of the House.

While mostly conservative Democrats are attempting to deny her the office, they simultaneously have no credible substitute, at least one that is electable.  In her four years as Speaker, Pelosi proved to be politically and operationally an effective leader, who knew the job and did the job with distinction.

It was only with her steady hand, her ability to listen and broker agreements but also her ability to exert discipline, that made the Affordable Care Act the law of the land.  Millions of people owe their health care to her efforts, as well as to President Obama.  Pelosi got other major legislation shaped and through, that got us out of the Great Recession and jumpstarted clean energy, for example.  Pelosi can count votes, and can be counted on.

It is especially crucial that the Democrats in the House hit the ground running in January, and only Nancy Pelosi has the experience, the knowledge of the House and the various committee chairs, to orchestrate a dynamic and unified start.

Even as a majority, the Democrats had weak leadership in the Senate.  At this crucial moment the House needs focus as much as it needs the diversity of new voices.  Pelosi has signaled her willingness to be a "transitional" leader, as the House trains up new leaders from the ranks of younger members.  But it is essential that in January 2019, Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House.

 Rep. Donna Edwards adds more specific reasons why this is necessary in her Washington Post oped.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Election Update: The More The Waveier

I stand corrected, sort of.  Since election night, Democrats have picked up more House seats (including in California), held on to some Senate seats they looked like they would lose, and with the concession of Republican candidate Martha McSally (who may well wind up appointed to the other Senate seat anyway) and election of Krysten Sinema as the new Senator from Arizona, the election's outcomes have made for a clearer picture, and that picture is a big Blue Wave.

Still outstanding is the Senate seat in Florida, now undergoing a sloppy but earnest recount despite the outrageous authoritarian efforts of Gov. Scott (who also happens to be the senatorial candidate being recounted) and Homegrown Hitler.  It would seem unlikely that the Dems will keep this seat, except for the hysteria being expressed by the Rs.  But either the Senate or governorship of this key state would be big.

The other element I overstated was the White House sense of gaining power, or at least not losing much of it.  Subsequent events have instead indicated fear and even panic there.  The turn towards naked and unhinged authoritarianism has been striking, but it isn't a confident turn.  It smells resentful and desperate.

That's most clear in HH's behavior: he is increasingly isolated, and has responded to this by increasing his isolation.  European leaders aren't even subtle about ignoring him.  Not only did he reportedly fume in his hotel room instead of visiting the war memorial in France, he actually skipped the traditional presidential Veterans Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

Instead he stayed in the White House that he has turned into a mausoleum.  The White House no longer hosts concerts and artistic and cultural events by America's best, because America's best won't set foot inside his White House.  He is left with nobody to give Medals of Freedom to except dead people.  Unless of course he believes Elvis is alive.

On the other hand, I am not revising my warning that he is still very dangerous, and there is still no certainty that he will be effectively resisted, or brought to account.

But we'll see.  More Mueller indictments are expected soon, it appears that the constitutionality of the temporary attorney general can be tested in court fairly easily, and the person who drafted the regulations governing the relationship of the Justice Dept. to the special prosecutor says this guy can't oversee Mueller.

It's heartening also that despite all the R political pressure, judges aren't buying the baseless accusations of vote fraud.  And despite HH's bullying of CA while another tragic wildfire takes lives, homes and forests, the federal government quietly does its job in helping deal with the fires and their effects.

Plus House Democratic leadership-to-be is making all the right moves--particularly in emphasizing voting rights while Rs are so blatantly opposing them.

Friday, November 09, 2018

The Overstory


 In tree-top terms, the canopy is also called the "overstory."  As the title of Richard Powers' novel, it can also be taken metaphorically as the meta-story, the story over all others, that makes the others possible (or impossible), including news stories.

As Ursula Le Guin memorably expressed in a title,  The Word for the World is Forest.  Imaginatively traveling to Endor is to glimpse our past, as the only planet in the universe so far known to nourish life of such immense variety.  This is the forest planet, or it was.

That the forest--and certainly the natural world--is the overstory, would be obvious for most of human life on this planet--so obvious that someone making this point would be stared at, and pitied.

Today of course, someone making this point is stared at and pitied because, although acknowledged as a truism, this mighty fact seems to no longer pertain.  Human civilization has conquered nature.  We banished threatening animals and destroyed their habitats.  We grow food with chemical magic that defies natural limitations.  We invented indoor plumbing and bug spray.  And so on.

But human civilization grew by destroying, on an ever-increasing scale. The time between the destruction and the consequences seemed endless, but it wasn't.  It isn't.

Now the most obvious consequence, the climate crisis, elicits about the same response as did cancer in the 1950s, when I was growing up.  People got cancer, but nobody talked about it.  People did not use the word out loud.  They could not speak what they most feared.

 Everyone knows that the climate crisis is created by fossil fuel pollution spewing too much carbon into the atmosphere.  But of contributing factors, the destruction of the planet's forests almost entirely now, ranks the highest, and reforestation is probably the most potent remedy.  But the truistic fact we really can't face is that in cutting down the forests we cut our own throats.


In an interview about The Overstory, Richard Powers explained: “It’s a book about taking the non-human seriously.” It is an assertion that for much of human history, and even today in many parts of the world, would seem ridiculously unnecessary. What could be more serious than the “non-human”—everything from the weather and plants that provided food and medicine, to the animals that people hunted, or fell prey to?

 It’s true that our literature missed much of this unwritten but not unstoried history, but even in the 19th century there were still wolves at the gate in Europe (and in Tolstoy), and into the 20th century in North America the struggles of pioneers were central to the novels of Cather and others.

 But the deep sense of interrelationship with the specific environment of a place, its embedded animals and plants, escaped much literary treatment. (It can be found however in contemporary accounts of some surviving indigenous cultures, such as Richard Nelson’s books on the Koyukon.)

Literature missed it, while science and the economic system governing culture ignored and denied it. Nature became a controlled resource, and science joined in a simplistic analysis that conformed to ideologically-driven theories of nature as uniformly rapacious, violent and individualistic, mirroring the structure of dominant capitalism that mandated that other life had no value except as it served humans, and especially certain humans’ profits.

Meanwhile the urbanized segment of humanity with pest control, running water, flush toilets and printing presses turned inward, and human culture became increasingly arrogant, ego-driven and delusional.

Like Naomi Klein to the climate crisis and Michael Pollan to expanded consciousness, Richard Powers is something of a Johnny-come-lately to forest issues and what forests represent in the non-human web of life that, among other things, supports humanity. But like them he brings fresh passion and perspective, as well as a contemporary voice with some power and moment, so that people—including those in the lit biz—may actually pay some attention.

The 502 pages of The Overstory are structured in four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds.  This structure is a visually accessible metaphor, as the various strands of roots nourish a common trunk before branching out again in separate (if often interrelated) fates.

 "Roots" presents the backstory of the nine major characters, in some cases including several previous generations. In the next section, several characters participate in the protests here in Humboldt County in the 1990s, when a rapacious Texas company was clear-cutting as many of the last old growth groves as they could. The fates of these characters become especially intertwined. The actual history is somewhat fictionalized but given a depth and specificity that brings the experience alive. Especially the experience of being up a tree.

 Their transformations, at least as radical as those experienced by characters in other Powers’ books, move toward new relationships with the reality of the world, rather than only within a temporary human enclave.

Along with the stories of people over time and over generations, there are stories and histories of trees: of the American Chestnut, the eastern pine forests, and Johnny Appleseed. The scientist character commits temporary career suicide by showing that trees communicate with each other through the air, warning of predators and diseases, and that through their roots they nourish and protect each other.

 But what constitutes the figure and what constitutes the ground of the narrative is a very close thing. So the book is about people, some of whom are passionately involved with trees and forest, and others who stumble to their own recognitions.  “Our brains evolved to solve the forest,” says the one character who is a tree expert. “We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been homo sapiens.”

But it is also about trees, and how people relate to them. “This is not our world with trees in it,” says that same expert. “It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” The figure and ground shift back and forth, when they aren’t essentially simultaneous.

 Powers provides some hope for the relationship. But humanity can no longer just affirm life—it must commit “unsuicide,” by radically changing the terms, before its own slow murderous suicide is accomplished.

The novel depicts the context of our American society and world civilization in which obsessive and dogmatic human self-centeredness destroys forests and the natural context that supports all life, enslaved by a suicidal geopolitical and geoeconomic system which mandates continuous growth on a planet of finite resources.

That vision of the world has previously been expressed mostly by ecologists, poets and science fiction writers like Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Powers becomes one of the few so-categorized mainstream literary novelists (Barbara Kingsolver and Jim Harrison come to mind) to marshal considerable literary skills to explore it.

“Life has a way of talking to the future,”a couple of characters observe. “It’s called memory.”

The extreme self-centeredness of contemporary civilization is likely to become a bitter joke in the near future. Today’s news that is most likely to be ignored or unabsorbed--like the melting polar ice, or the depletion of wildlife in the world (by 60% in the past couple of human generations, according to the World Wildlife Fund today, mostly due to climate and the obliteration of tropical forests, practically the last on the planet)—will have consequences that are destined to dominate the news not more than a few decades hence.

But that self-centeredness, that absorption in social media passions within the nuclear grip of global capitalism, also extends to readers. Powers obviously anticipated this, and puckishly embedded an anticipatory review: “She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. And she could never keep the characters straight.”

 There are colliding hopes and fears in this novel, though it is hard at times to keep the characters straight. Still, the theme is a challenge to readers in much the same way that climate news gets ignored in favor of the outrage of the moment. The familiar emotions and presence of the strictly human world obliterates perception of the rest of reality.

But as one character will say to another (while both are swaying on the branches of a redwood) “The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” (I’m not sure that’s universally true, but maybe true enough.)

Apart from the usual suspects of likely readers, I suspect Powers’ time at Stanford, his understanding of the tech world and a direct pitch to its conscience and potential to make a difference will pay dividends.

Beyond that it remains to be seen. The first big literary prize since publication was the Man Booker in the UK, for which The Overstory was shortlisted, and was said to be the odds-on favorite to win.

Yet an article in the Guardian quotes booksellers complaining that the Man Booker is not much help to sales these days. They opine on the marketable book they hope will win. “ But the book I think will win is The Overstory by Richard Powers.” one unnamed bookseller is quoted as saying. It’s not clear whose voice it is but the paragraph continues: “In case you don’t know – I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s read it – The Overstory is an idiosyncratic and, in the words of one plucky critic, “valiant” 500-page epic that is supposed to do for trees what Moby-Dick did for whales. Perhaps this is why my contact is laughing.”

The Man Booker was also beset with criticism because it’s traditionally been a UK prize but American authors have won the last two. Also there was anticipatory nervousness that with a majority of women writers on the shortlist, giving the prize to another male writer would be unseemly. That Powers is an American male author may have contributed to why The Overstory did not win, though the subject that had a Guardian reporter rolling her eyes may also have played a conscious or unconscious part.

 The prize went to Northern Irish author Anna Burns for her “Troubles-era” novel “Milkman.” The jury seemed to stress that the selection was unanimous. Burns has a compelling personal story, and the novel is widely praised (and now, a best-seller.) But worthy but often repeated topics such as the Troubles, the slave trade, child abuse and various human relationship have such a visceral hold on readers and writers that reviving that crucial, vital deep connection with non-human life and its peril remains a hard sell.

Still, there are the National Book Award and the Pulitzers to come. Regardless of its upcoming prizes fates, the literary reach of The Overstory suggests it can have that longer, more persistent life of study: formal study in the groves of academe, informal study everywhere.

The Overstory may not live as long as a redwood but the lifespan of a paper birch could still imbue a generation with its ideas and emotions. For that process, the impressive body of interviews given by its formerly reclusive author should help. And I suspect this is not the last we've heard on this subject from this author. In the meantime, this novel repays reading and re-reading, and it a possible gateway to other relevant books, some of which are mentioned in the text.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

A Blue Wave in One Ocean?

What happened to the Blue Wave?  If you look at the raw vote total, the Democrats had one: an 8.7 congressional ballot advantage, which is at least a point better than past elections dubbed Waves.  Numbers guy Ezra Klein tweeted: Unemployment is 3.7% right now. America isn't at war. A margin this big is nuts — a pure repudiation of Trump."

But in some respects this is like fixating on Hillary winning three million more votes than the White House incumbent.  In many federal and state races Democrats (most spectacularly in the Texas Senate race) cut deeply into R dominance--just not enough to change the outcome.

 If it is a wave, it might be what Josh Marshall calls a Wave in one ocean.  That would be the House of Representatives, where the Democrats fairly easily won back the majority, even before the western state returns were counted.

But it was a very dismal night for the US Senate, as the most contested seats fell to the Rs, including D incumbents.  Now the Rs have a Senate majority it will be almost impossible for them to lose before 2022.  And there are fewer purple states.

The House majority means Russian interference and administration corruption will be investigated, but given the complete hold that Homegrown Hitler has on the Republican Party, that may not mean much because this Senate will never vote to convict on impeachment, and this demagogue in chief will never resign.

The Dem majority will certainly prevent terrible legislation from becoming law, and may at least challenge damaging executive decisions.  But the Senate has real power over the appointment of judges to federal courts, and to administration posts.  Moreover the Senate is now more Trumpian than ever, so those appointments will sail through.

The House majority was settled before California polls closed, which turned out to be a good thing.  Analysts had once suggested that it might come down to flipping several California districts--and so far, only one or two of these seems about to oust a Republican incumbent--possibly including the infamous Dana Rohrabacher--but that isn't even certain yet.  The repulsive Nunes retained his seat, as did other veteran Rs, though they are now relegated to ranking members of the minority.  Nunes in particular will no longer chair the House intelligence committee.  But as a whole, California remained proportionately the same.  And that is a metaphor for the entire outcome.  Things are the same, only more so.

It's true that the Dems did well in governorships--flipping at least six, including finally ousting Wisconsin's notorious Scott Walker--but they failed to win Florida and Ohio, where the governor can instigate and hide voter suppression and other hanky-panky in traditionally close states.  If Dems gained majorities in key state legislatures they may prevent Rs from using the 2020 census to gerrymander even more.

 And it is also true that early indications are that record numbers of people voted.  Whether the lack of visible change will dampen their spirits for next time is yet to be seen.

The changes may be important--not only in the House majority but the specific new members elected (including the first Native American women.)  The House got smarter, but with the arrival of Rick Scott, Josh Hawley and the rest of the new Rs, the Senate got stupider.

So it's possible to look at this election as did Aaron Blake at the Washington Post: "Republicans will pitch this as a split decision, because they held the Senate. It’s not; the Senate map was highly favorable to them. Democrats just took over a chamber of Congress, and that’s a big night for them, period."

And with the Guardian's Richard Wolffe: "Donald Trump's unchecked hold on power has come to an end...Republicans should have sailed to victory at a time of relative peace and prosperity, with unemployment at historic lows and wages rising. But in the House – a truly national contest, unlike the US Senate – voters showed there were clear electoral limits to Trump’s rabidly anti-immigrant racism and stunningly shameless sexism."  And he has the demographic numbers to show where the power shifts are.

Or with the Post's Marc Fisher: "Energized by two years of the most divisive rhetoric in modern American history, voters shared the conviction that their country was at the precipice of a democratic implosion and that their vote mattered."  Or with Dana Milbank that "America steps back from the abyss," or Jennifer Rubin that "Voters give Trump a big thumbs down."

Or perhaps with Ed Rogers: By most measures, Republicans beat the odds of history and nearly everyone’s expectations, while Democrats were left disappointed as the fantasy of Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams and others winning fizzled. Not one new progressive Democrat was successful bursting onto the scene. It will take a few days to process the meaning of this year’s election returns, but the instant analysis is clear: Democrats may have won the House, but Trump won the election."

I'll probably go with Chuck Todd who said that the American electorate is clearly in transition (he cites Dems taking suburbia for instance) but that we haven't turned the corner yet.  Maybe I'm biased because I'd hoped that the 2008 election was the corner we turned, but it wasn't.  History may say otherwise about the 2018 election, but at this moment, it didn't seem to be this one either.

History may show that the people elected this year began the change.  History might even show that changes in the states meant more momentum to dealing with the ultimate threat of the climate crisis.  But that's not obvious now, either.

 In immediate terms, the House majority means that a lot is going to be different in Washington. Nancy Pelosi is right about that-- and by the way, she is the most effective national Democratic leader there is, and it would be really stupid to get rid of her. Whether it's a difference only in the noise also remains to be seen, or heard.

So today the 2020 presidential campaign starts.  This election may have helped the Dems in creating community and state level infrastructure, but it didn't seem to spotlight a presidential candidate possibility.  Rogers is right about that: it made no new progressive Democratic stars, or even hopes (although some early talk about Beto O'Rourke.)

It seems like a dangerous situation.  There is no outstanding Democratic choice, and most of the candidate possibilities are old and familiar, and with enemies.  My instincts tell me only a fresh voice will work.  Homemade Hitler has proven to be stunningly resilient--just the scandals of this year, of the past month--suggest he can withstand anything.  He has only one real skill, and that is as a demagogue.  But he's very effective at that.  And as his Nazi predecessor proved, that can be fateful.

In my remaining years it would be nice to see this country rally, and fight the good fight as it struggles against the catastrophes coalescing in the near future as a result of our destruction of the planet's ability to sustain the life it has. It probably will rally, just not real soon. In the end, though, it may not make much difference, except to the people involved (which is a big difference to them.)  That's what passes for solace these days.


The Washington state ballot measure to enact a carbon fee on polluters failed, about 57% to 44%.  In Iowa, J.D. Scholten came closer than anyone thought possible to unseating the infamous Steve King, but didn't win.  The remote chance of bipartisan climate crisis action took a hit when one of the leading R proponents (who supported a carbon tax), congressman Carlos Curbelo, lost to a D.  Meanwhile, a number of Ds who support strong climate action won.

And my candidates in PA 10 and Delaware 21 also lost.  Condolences all. You fought the good fight.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programs, which are already in progress.

More Stuff To Watch For in 2018 Election Results

In addition to the party totals, here are a couple of more things I'll be watching in the 2018 election results.

It's the future versus the big oil companies' big bucks in Washington state, in a fight over a ballot measure that would be the first in the country to enact fees on carbon pollution emitters.

 The Union of Concerned Scientists and some big contributors--like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg--are for it.  But almost all of the $29 million spent to defeat it comes from fossil fuel corporations.

According to the Atlantic: "Tuesday, residents of Washington State will vote on whether to adopt a carbon fee, an ambitious policy that aims to combat climate change by charging oil companies and other polluters for the right to emit greenhouse-gas pollution.

If the measure passes, Washington would immediately have one of the most aggressive climate policies in the country. The proposal—known as Ballot Initiative 1631—takes something of a “Green New Deal” approach, using the money raised by the new fee to build new infrastructure to prepare the state for climate change. It would generate millions to fund new public transit, solar and wind farms, and forest-conservation projects in the state; it would also direct money to a working-class coal community and a coastal indigenous tribe."

  According to Inside Climate News:"Washington's Initiative 1631 could begin a movement in the U.S. to make the price of fossil fuels reflect their cost to the planet—a step economists believe would be the most effective market mechanism to reduce greenhouse gases."


Also interesting in this regard are three races in Iowa, in which Democrats are actually raising the issue of the climate crisis, even in deep red districts. These include J.D. Scholten, who is running to unseat the infamous--and infamously entrenched-- Steve King.

Inside Climate News: Key in all three of the contested Iowa congressional races are farmers, who have been battered by Trump's trade and energy policies as surely as they've been pummeled by the weather. 

Climate change may not be the leading issue being raised by the Democratic challengers—for Scholten, it's just part of his larger message that King is out of touch—but it is looming in the background, like the wind turbines turning in the horizon in Scholten's campaign ads. This election will test how long a state with 88,000 farms—and more than 20 percent of employment linked directly or indirectly to agriculture—is willing to tolerate elected leaders who deny one of the greatest risks to the farming industry."

"One thing about climate change—farmers care about that," said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "Maybe not in the same sort of way you hear in a lot of other areas. But what happens with the weather—if it's wetter or drier—that's going to affect farmers' ability to harvest. They care about this."

Also, alternative energy is tied deeply to the farm economy in Iowa. In a state that is second only to Texas in wind power, farmers and other rural landowners earn an estimated $20 million a year from lease payments for hosting turbines on their land."



Meanwhile of course I'll be watching a couple of races in particular: the Democratic congressional candidate George Scott in PA 10, and the 21st district Delaware state Senate Democratic candidate Bob Wheatley.  I wish them well on Tuesday.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

The Candidates' Closing Argument (That You Will Never Hear)

On the even of the election, the candidate speaks:

Government does three things. First, it provides stability and security for the present.  It does this year in and year out almost invisibly, but because of government we have the infrastructure of our daily lives, we are protected as much as we can be from crime and foreign attack, we assume our food and water and medicines are safe. Our children go to school, our elderly receive their benefits.

 These days, this role of government is under attack, which is stunning in itself. So I must pledge to see that government has the resources and the tools to provide stability and security, and for some, that will be controversial.

Second, government responds to emergencies that are too big for anyone alone to handle.  In the depths of the Depression, when someone in the FDR government proposed something that would help alleviate unemployment and hunger in the long term,  FDR's advisor Harry Hopkins pointed out, "People don't eat in the long term.  They eat every day."  I pledge to see that government has the resources and tools to respond to emergencies.

Both of these functions are about the present.  There are other aspects of the present in which government has a role--government guarantees that Constitutional and individual rights aren't violated, and that our laws are enforced without prejudice, and without fear or favor.  I support justice and equality, and efforts to promote the general welfare.

But there is a third function of government that never seems to make it into political discussions or political campaigns.  It is government's responsibility to the future.  Today the future is imperiled by global heating and related ecological destruction, such as deforestation and species extinction.  The future this damage is creating is not very far off.  It's already begun.  But we never talk about it.

At best, most candidates mention a catch-phrase or two, or we talk about preserving the beauty of nature, as if that's all that's at stake when the Earth as we know it collapses.

We've had our heads in the sand for years now.  Nobody wants to talk about it, not in any detail, least of all political candidates.  We'd all rather fashion our applause lines out of the issues of the moment.  You can list the issues of the moment for the past twenty elections.  Some will recur, but a lot of them have disappeared.  And none--and I mean none--are going to be as important as the fate of the planet.

The fate of planetary life determines the fate of your children and grandchildren, and of everything we hold dear.  We've known the Earth as it supports us is and has been in peril for at least a generation but we politicians never talk about it, especially at election time.

But what else really should our elections be about?  There's nothing more important.   So I pledge to make the future my overriding concern.  I pledge to talk about the causes and effects of the climate crisis and related problems at every opportunity, and I promise to make these issues my top priority.

When this election is over, candidates for President in 2020 will begin to make their moves.  Whether or not I am elected this year, I pledge to badger every presidential candidate, to demand that they talk in detail about these issues of the future, especially the climate crisis.

We should have done this a long time ago.  We can't hide from it any longer.  We all know that the national attention goes immediately to the latest shiny object.  We've got to insist that the next shiny object is the climate crisis.  Presidential candidates have the forum for getting that started.  Despite whatever credentials on this issue past presidential candidates had, none of them really did this.  We must insist they do this time.

So that's something else I pledge to do if I'm elected.  Or if I'm not.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

In Action: You'd Do the Same For Me in Pittsburgh

On Wednesday, another three funerals of Jews shot and killed as they prayed in the Tree of Life synagogue.  On Tuesday, a demonstration to protest Homegrown Hitler's racist language and policies, which only accelerated on Wednesday as election day draws near.  He also lied about the size of this "small" demonstration.

Money has been raised in Pittsburgh for the families of the victims, including more than $200,000 from the Muslim community.

The murderer, Robert Bowers, posted on a rabid right social media site shortly before he attacked the synagogue:"HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in.

HIAS is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees.  In 1975, the US government asked this nonprofit organization to help in settling refugees from the Vietnam War.  Since then, it has aided and advocated for refugees around the world.  It has helped to resettle more than four million people.  This is "you'd do the same for me" in action.


HIAS has its main offices in Maryland and New York, with an international presence.  But Pittsburgh has an affiliate organization--the Jewish Family and Community Services--and HIAS sponsored a National Refugee Shabbat in October, in which the Tree of Life synagogue participated.

Bowers followed the lead of Homegrown Hitler and Fox News in believing that the caravan of refugees now in Mexico fleeing oppression in central America presents a danger to this country, because it is comprised of violent criminals out to kill American citizens.  Rabid Right racists claim leftist Jews sponsor the caravan.

These baseless charges were amplified Wednesday by an official Republican campaign ad on the caravan that CNN labels as racist.  Meanwhile, early voting in a number of states has set records.

HIAS has also experienced a flood of donations.  Here is their website, where donations can be made.  I've made mine.

Monday, October 29, 2018

You'd Do the Same for Me

The Squirrel Hill community stands together at Murray & Forbes

So far the echoes from the gunshots that killed 11 in Squirrel Hill continue to reverberate and dominate.  I've begun hearing personal stories of current and former residents, and media stories bare the unspeakable and the unbearably poignant.

The Washington Post notes, concerning the shooter Bowers:

"Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat representing the Pittsburgh area, said FBI Special Agent in Charge Bob Jones told elected leaders Saturday evening that Bowers possessed 21 firearms. The tally included the semiautomatic assault-style rifle and three handguns found in the synagogue, as well as a shotgun that Doyle said authorities recovered from Bowers’s vehicle. Other weapons were found in his apartment."

CNN reproduced the comments of a first generation American Jew whose parents were caught in the Nazi horror called the Holocaust:

"We all felt the same thing: how glad we were that our parents weren't alive to see this happen in America; how we always felt safe as Jews living in the US and going to services, and how we must be the voices for our parents to make change and hold those who incite hatred accountable..."

USA Today described one of many memorial gestures and events in Pittsburgh:

Jewish girls from a nearby Chabad orthodox school had walked to the Tree of Life Synagogue, prayer books in their hands and blue ribbons tied to their hair and wrists, to sing. They harmonized in Hebrew about how Jews have prevailed despite persecution through generations. They wrapped each other in their arms. They swayed. Their music, from the Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, told of a time free of war and full of peace.

The story quoted one of the young participants:“I don’t want to be hated,” Talia said. She wore blue bows in each of her pony tails and a ribbon around her neck.“I know how it feels to be hated, and I don’t want that for other people.”

It is a dark moment in America.  When I started calling the resident of the White House by the name of Homemade Hitler, and illustrated posts with photos from Nazi Germany, something like this was part of what could be foreseen.  When the highest official in the country foments hate and incites violence, it focuses violent feelings and gives them permission to be expressed.  This is, as it was for Hitler, a source of his political power.

But the contrast is not only, not chiefly, with songs of peace and love.  The contrast is with a certain kind of civility, that was defined for me in Squirrel Hill more than 20 years ago.

I was reminded of that moment again when I read accounts of most of those who were murdered as they prayed in the Tree of Life synagogue.  I've since learned that the degree of separation between me and several of them is no more than two. All of them were old enough that I may have passed them on Murray Avenue, held a door open for one at the Post Office, or been at an event with others.  A couple sound familiar, though I didn't know any of them well.

My lesson back then also came from a stranger, though not any of these.  It came from a black man who worked at the Eat & Park on Murray Avenue, half a block from the corner with Forbes Avenue where the first memorial vigils took place.

That was my air-conditioned refuge in the sweltering summers of the early 90s, and at any time I could talk myself into a piece of their strawberry pie.  But mostly they kept filling my coffee cup, as I sat at the counter or a table, reading and writing.  For a few years at least it was my clean, well-lighted place.

On one such afternoon I knocked a pen off my table as I read.  Before I could bend down to get it, a black man who worked there had picked it up and returned it to me.  I thanked him.  He was already on his way when he said, softly and simply but with quiet meaning, "you'd do the same for me."

I'd heard the phrase before (just as I've told this story before) but at that moment it hit me with particular force.  I realized that it was nothing less than  a summary of the social compact, of human relationships among strangers.  The Golden Rule doesn't quite cut it--it's a formula that is essentially self-centered.  "You'd do the same for me" says much more.

It is not only a moral formula but a statement of faith, not only in the principles of kindness and helping as automatic responses, but faith that this principle is shared.  It's the faith of every day.  It's how a complex human society works--perhaps the only way it can work.

Reading what others said about the victims suggests to me that they all shared this faith.  It was a basis of their daily lives in the Squirrel Hill community and beyond.  It was certainly something I felt present every day on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

Political action is necessary, voting on Tuesday is necessary, symbols of community solidarity are necessary.  But so is the civility made real by the daily assumption of "you'd do the same for me."

Civility isn't always polite silence, and it isn't ignoring the realities of politically or economically motivated violence--let alone ignoring the reality of evil.  It isn't only a live and let live tolerance, though this itself is clearly endangered.  The only way people in this country are going to get through the challenges of the next decades is if "you'd do the same for me" is the motivating center of  how we live with each other.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Tree of Life

We are heartbroken.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you.  It's what everybody says after the all-too familiar catastrophes, especially mass shootings.

To some extent they mean it, of course.  But this time for me, for Margaret and me, it's more personal than usual.  Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh was once our home.

The candlelight gathering Saturday night after a heavily armed anti-Jewish ultra right bigot shot up a Squirrel Hill synagogue during services, was held on the corner of Murray Avenue and Forbes Avenue, a spot I know very well.  My heart is there with them now.

News stories rightly emphasize that many Jews live in Squirrel Hill, the historic center of the Jewish community well beyond Pittsburgh, and at least some stories also mention that it is now a very diverse area, as it has been for decades.  I'm sure many of the people at the memorial were not Jews but there to bear witness to solidarity with their neighbors.

I lived in Squirrel Hill in the 1990s.  Margaret and her children lived near its northern edge for longer than that, close to Wilkins Avenue where 11 people were shot dead and others injured.  I lived at its southern border, but at the foot of the steep hill that forms Murray Avenue, the neighborhood's commercial center.

Though it is likely I have some Jewish ancestors, I was raised Catholic. I have never been more comfortable in a neighborhood than I was in Squirrel Hill.  I walked up Murray Avenue, and then up Forbes nearly every day.  People in Arcata are courteous.  People in Squirrel Hill were friendly, in a personal way.

A CBS affiliate story included a brief interview with the rabbi who until this year ran the Tree of Life, where the gunman attacked:

Meghan Schiller: Did you ever as rabbi think that you were gonna have to deal with this?

 Diamond: “I thought about it all the time, I have to tell you. When I was there, in the back of my mind, I always have the thought of something like this happening and what I would do, unfortunately, because of the world we live in.”

Or at least the country we live in.  The times we live in.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Steph Inflection



As I withdraw from following the daily chatter on civilization's fall into the abyss, I renew and revive my interest in the meaningless but at least aesthetically pleasing worlds of sports.

So in Major League baseball's postseason I've gone easily from a Yankees fan (because Andrew McCutchen was starting) and Brewers fan to a Red Sox fan, and there have been some beautiful games.  A couple of catches in the outfield last night were classic. The Sox infield is amazing.

I've even gone back to football despite my misgivings.  That's how heinous the news is.

But the NBA season has begun and that's golden.  As in Golden State Warriors, and Steph Curry.  A two-time MVP and 3 point shooting phenom who literally changed how NBA basketball is played, he's been kind of an afterthought the past two seasons.  But in this young year, he's back.

He's scoring at around a 30 point game average, but last night he had one of those signature Curry games.  He scored 51 points in three quarters (really, in two quarters plus a little more.) He hit 11 three point shots, and extended his series of records for 3s that is too dominant to go into. The Warriors were so far ahead after 3 quarters that he didn't play in the fourth, so there's no telling what records he might have set.

Here are two things I think about now when I think about Steph Curry.  First, that he ends his daily shooting regimen with 100 three pointers.  That's 100, to end  his workout.

Add caption
Second, there are these video ads on YouTube with famous people in various fields--acting, film directing, writing, etc.--advertising their Master Classes.  In his, Curry talks about what shooters focus on when they shoot.  The front of the rim of the basket?  The square over the basket on the backboard?  Curry says he focuses on the metal rings through which the nylon of the basket are threaded.

He said that from any angle he can usually see at least two or three of them.  He focuses on these as he takes his shot.

Consider then that Steph Curry, the documented best long range shooter in NBA history, is often shooting from about 30 feet away, or a little less and a lot more.  He hit a couple from 40 feet last night.

He is also known for one of the quickest releases in basketball--and he's even quicker this year.  No stare at the basket, dribble and set his feet and shoot.  His shot is off in a shot, as you can see from several long-range shots in the above video from last night.  How can he even see those metal rings from 30 feet and beyond, let alone focus on them in a millisecond?

Apparently Curry was hitting regularly from half court in his warmups last evening.  But it isn't until the game starts that shooters know if they're hot.  Game announcers often suggest that a particularly long range shot after several makes is a "heat check."  Once a shooter is hot, teammates look for them to shoot.  And in the first and third quarters last night, Curry's shot was on fire.  Several shots were not only from amazing distances and in difficult situations, they were beautiful.

So it's more than distraction.  It's wonder.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Tantrum Defined (in Context)

Richard Powers:

"History is filled with moments when doomed regimes redouble their own insanity by speeding up self-destruction rather than capitulating to accountability. We are in one such moment, perhaps the most catastrophic one ever.

No one should be fooled: the motive behind all of this “deregulation” is not primarily economic. Any reasonable accounting reveals that the sum of these measures carries external costs far greater than the hoped-for benefits. (Did you know that the number-one killer in the world is pollution? And that doesn’t even include premature deaths from climate change.)

The push to remove all environmental safety strikes me as mostly psychological. It’s driven by a will to total dominance, underwritten by the hierarchy of values that George Lakoff calls “stern paternalism,” putting men above women, whites above minorities, Americans above all other countries, and humans above all other living things. Trumpism calls it a return to greatness (a.k.a., “Grab ’em by the…”). It might better be called a tantrum in the face of a crumbling control fantasy."
*                                                       *                                                *

"Of course, the real question about optimism and hopefulness is: Hopeful for what? I have zero hope that our current culture of consumer individualism will survive. How could it? Its basic principles are at war with real real life, and fantasy can’t defeat inexorable biological truths. There is no place for a system predicated on endless growth in a world of finite resources being infinitely recycled. Anyone who can’t conceive of a way for humans to exist other than capitalism will find herself pinned under overwhelming despair.

But hopeful for life? It’s a pretty good long-term bet. The planet has several times come back from the brink of nothing, even from perturbations in the planetary systems as violent as the one we have set in motion. That kind of hope, though, requires thinking on the scale and time frame of forests, not people."

Richard Powers
Interview with the Los Angeles Times Book Review on his novel Overstory. Emphasis added.

I don't necessarily agree that deregulation isn't primarily economic--that is, based on greed-- as it benefits a small number of wealthy corporations and rich Republicans, and therefore their corrupt political minions.  But I do agree that the "crumbling control fantasy" is a major component of what's going on now, especially its emotional power.  Anyone can have a control fantasy, even those oppressed by the wealthy who identify with those who were used to controlling things; identifying with them on the basis of race, gender and ideology.  Powers articulates this well.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Context Defined


Meet tomorrow's headliner today.

There's news, and there's news that tells the future.  Which is more significant?

The insects are dying out. According to the Washington Post, one recent study of a Puerto Rico forest showed that beetles, bees and other invertebrates have declined in number by 45%--nearly half--in just the past 35 years.  In German nature preserves, flying insects have decreased by three-fourths.

In that Puerto Rico forest where the insect crash was calculated, there is also a noticeable decline in birds, as well as lizards and frogs--animals that feed on insects.  This trend appears to be global.

The report concludes that "climate warming is the major driver of reductions in arthropod abundance, indirectly precipitating a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the forest food web."

In other words, when the insects go, all lifeforms are threatened--from plants and on up the food chain.

If this trend continues, there is no way that the current global population of humans, and probably its current interconnected and interdependent civilization, can survive.

But we might just call that the nail on the coffin.

 Civilization is threatened now in many parts of the world, and will be likely be in most or all of the world in this century, with conspicuous challenges evident everywhere--even the US and other rich nations-- before the century is half over.

One look at the climate crisis data concludes:

"It’s already bad. But when will things get so bad that it is obviously — obviously — the worst problem in the world? How long until we go over the cliff? That depends on how much we’ve heated up already, and how fast we’re getting hotter.

Bottom line: at the rate we’re going, we’ll hit extremely bad, possibly intolerable, probably between 2040 and 2045. Maybe a couple years later, maybe a couple years earlier, but it’s not far away."

That comports with other views. A few years ago, by the way, that date used to be 2050, but the climate news has been worse that expected.

Could the worst be avoided?  Probably, though it's too late to avoid it completely.  Twenty years ago, experts said we had ten to twenty years to address the climate crisis.  They meant take meaningful if gradual steps to reduce the output of greenhouse gases.  But not much was done.  So that option is no longer available.  Nothing will stop the climate crisis--it has started, and it's unlikely to go back to the way it was for a very, very long time.

Now you may hear some saying we have ten to twenty years to act in order to avoid climate catastrophe.  But this time, they mean going all out--transforming global civilization to reduce carbon and other greenhouse outputs to nothing-- immediately.  In the meantime, it will still be getting hotter.

There's a lot going on that doesn't make headlines.  A lot of local and regional plans, many promising new energy and carbon sequestration technologies, a high proportion of them involving sophisticated uses of plants, but also conceptually simple tasks such as planting trees (as well as a complete end to cutting down existing forests.)

But there isn't the political will, the consensus on any level, that is necessary.  Not now.  So...

So in a couple of decades, or maybe sooner, there will be no news that isn't in one way or another climate crisis news.

Among the big newsmakers will be insects.


Friday, October 19, 2018

Unimproved Ends: Emerson for the Day



"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.  They are but improved means to unimproved ends...

...a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."

Thoreau
Walden 1854

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Quote From Memory

"I get all the news I need from the weather report/
I can gather all the news I need from the weather report/
Mmmm, I got nothing to do today but smile
dodio dodio dodio dodio.../Here I am..."

Paul Simon
"The Only Living Boy in New York"

Friday, October 05, 2018

History of My Reading: Primary Group

Anderson House. Photo courtesy of Chip Evans, who also lived there.
Apart from my English 103 course, essentially an independent studies to write a paper, I had four actual courses(plus phys ed)  the first semester of my freshman year at Knox College, in the fall of 1964.

That included an eight o'clock class, the only one I took in those four years. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a morning person.  But I was arising early enough to hear the only program my radio could muster on the local Galesburg station: the Farm Report.  It was not, as I remember, a report on farm techniques and news affecting local crops.  What I recall, washing my face and brushing my teeth at the iron-stained wash basin in my third floor Anderson House room, was a daily drone of stock market prices.  Hog futures featured prominently.

That and the sound of chainsaws in the distance, felling the last of the diseased elms on and around campus, form my memories of those early mornings.

Prof. John L. Stipp
 I don't recall which course that 8 o'clock was, although judging from my mid-term grades I'd bet on Western Civ with Prof. John Stipp.  Ramrod straight and entering the classroom in something like a cape, professor Stipp reminded me a bit of Bishop Sheen and his inexplicable hit TV show in the 1950s.  Also oddly the model of what I'd imagined a university professor would be.

He was formal and well-spoken, dryly humorous, exacting and a bit dramatic.  I didn't know until recently of his work on Nazi Germany.  But in a couple of years from that fall he would be among the faculty leaders in speaking out against the Vietnam war.

I have no memory of what this book
looked like in 1964.  Maybe this.
In this course he was rigorous, teaching from a widely used textbook he'd co-authored (and if memory serves, he donated royalties back to the college.)  For some of our classmates who majored in history he was an inspiration.  For the rest of us I suspect he was most famous--or infamous-- for his exams, and his unique multiple choice questions on which event in history happened third.

I don't remember anything about that textbook, or the form and content of the course. My only actual memory of this course involves another exam question.  It involved choosing the right sequence of parts.  I'd finished the exam and was taking it to the front of the room when another student somehow saw my paper and whispered that the answer was supposed to have three parts, not the five I'd written down (or something like that.)  I took it back to my seat and re-did the answer, then turned it in.

As he returned the corrected exams at a subsequent class, Prof. Stipp in his most magisterial tone pronounced the (to me) immortal words: "I am sure I will endear Mr. Kowinski to the rest of you by announcing that he was the only one in the class to answer [that question] correctly."

Nevertheless, my final grade for the semester was B-.  Though an improvement over the C- at midterms, I got a better final grade in PE.

That first semester I was also taking Spanish 101 (the low-level horror of that experience I described in this earlier post), and Math 121, about which I recall very little.  The young professor Ron Hourston taught it.  I remember he seemed nervous but likable, and clearly very smart.  I did surprisingly well the first half of the semester (I got a B on the only test, and nobody got an A) but in the end I barely passed the course.

Something like these pinstripes in the 1940 film "The Philadelphia Story"
The course I remember best--and the one I enjoyed most at the time--was Sociology 201.  It was taught by a tall young professor, Michael La Sorte.  I recall him striding in a kind of controlled lope across the front of the room, back and forth in front of the blackboard as he talked, and I especially remember his suits.

 The typical men's suit of the mid-60s can be seen in any photo of President Kennedy: form-fitting, soft shoulder, two-button, short jacket with fairly narrow lapels and uncuffed trousers.  I was fascinated with La Sorte's suits because I hadn't seen anything like them outside of 1940s Hollywood movies:  loose fitting pants with cuffs, oversized long jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, often double-breasted.

Once when he was talking about the characteristic dress of certain immigrant subcultures (Latino and Italian) in big cities,  he mentioned the "zoot suit."   As he described it he glanced at himself and added, "I guess that's what this is."  His weren't quite that elaborate but I always had the feeling that his suits were inherited, perhaps from his father, and this was his first teaching job.  (It was in fact his first year at Knox.)


Anyway, the course was interesting, and I learned a lot from its textbook: Society by Ely Chinoy.  It remained so clear in my memory that I immediately recognized a copy when I came upon one more recently: it's the second, 1967 edition (ours was from 1961) but it has the same cover and seems basically familiar.

It was my academic introduction to such concepts as social stratification, cultures and subcultures.  It pertained to my previous interest in books about the relationships of the individual and society, and political power.  But it also brought me further along in recognizing the role of ethnic and status distinctions, of which I was only vaguely aware, and mostly ignorant.

That was partly due to my previous education. I was educated in Catholic schools to fix my identity on two things: being Catholic (first and foremost) and being an American.  I'm sure my classmates were smarter about other distinctions, but I literally could not recognize so much as an Irish name (unless it started with Mc), let alone a Jewish one. I didn't even consciously know Polish names (all I knew was that, like my own, they were long and made people uncomfortable) or even Italian names, beyond the Italian American culture I partly grew up in. I guess I had some awareness but in my time and place, Italian American culture was shared by everybody.  Big figures in the culture included Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Graziano, Frank Sinatra.  There were Italian language hit records.  Even Rosemary Clooney sang Italian songs.

I gradually learned more from Knox classmates.  One of the first I remember meeting outside Anderson House was Neil Gaston.  He told funny stories that also elucidated status assumptions.  I knew nothing about prep schools, or the relative social standing of various Chicago high schools and suburbs.  Or how snobbish pretension could be undermined by a jacket with a Penney's label.

Early in my freshman year I also met Holly Sue Thompson of Morton Grove and her friend Edie Haptonstahl, who lived with her large family not far from the Knox campus.  Perhaps they were both in my Sociology class, but I'm pretty sure Edie was, because I recall her referring to the three of us as our "primary group," a concept from the Chinoy text, defined as "characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation."  We went around together for those first months.  I got some home-cooked meals at Edie's, to supplement the food service fare.

As for that sociology class, my final paper was about a book, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry by Robert Blauner, new from University of Chicago Press that year.

 Alienation was a hot topic then, though not everyone defined it the same way.  Scholars worried that industrial workers, subject to the tedium of repetitive jobs in noisy and sometimes unhealthy and dangerous workplaces, felt powerless, bored and angry.  That's when industrial jobs were plentiful and seemed like they'd last forever.  Now that many of those jobs are gone, together with their relatively high pay and security, there's nostalgia about them, and their alienating effects forgotten.

Chaplin in "Modern Times" expressed
industrial alienation in now iconic images
The book studies workers in 16 industrial job settings.  The most attention is paid to an automated chemical plant, and this is what I remember about the book: that these workers, who had little to do but trouble-shoot the automated machinery, were the least alienated, because they were the most involved in what they were doing, and in the process as a whole. (Automation was another hot topic, leading to much discussion later in the 1960s about the Guaranteed Annual Income as a way to safeguard against the effects of widespread unemployment due to machines taking over human jobs. That discussion, moribund for 40 years or so, is alive again.)

In my paper I was supposed to summarize and illustrate the data and findings, and offer my judgment. I was skeptical that automation was going to lessen or end worker alienation, or would prove to be more fulfilling.  I felt that the "freedom" it promised was illusory, and fragile at best.

Since I enjoyed this eye-opening class, I've since wondered why I didn't take another sociology course.  Maybe doing the actual science seemed dull--designing and evaluating questionnaires, etc.  Or more likely, I wanted to keep exploring different fields, and never got back to it.

As for Michael La Sorte, he became part of the Knox "brain drain" of younger professors that was so controversial in later semesters. He wound up at the State University of New York at Brockport, and authored a book I wish I'd known about at the time: La Merica: Images Of Italian Greenhorn Experience, published in 1985, just a month after my The Malling of America (some reviews of which identified me as a "sociologist," which I had never claimed to be.)

I certainly have responded in recent years to the ethnic stereotyping of Italian Americans as Mafia goons (as in the collection of Italian love songs--which dominated American cultures in the 40s and 50s--as Mob Hits.)  Since retiring, "Mike La Sorte" continues to write about such subjects.

Outside of course work, I recall a few books I read that first semester, introduced to me by classmates.  Ted Szostkowski, who lived in the room next to mine at Anderson House, recommended A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a novel spanning centuries concerning the slow rise and abrupt fall again of civilization after a 20th century nuclear holocaust. Perhaps we'd been talking about science fiction, for Miller was an accomplished author of science fiction stories published in the pulp magazines, including the linked stories that he turned into this novel.

An underground cult novel as well as supposed genre fiction at the time I read it, A Canticle For Leibowitz (first published in 1959) has since become one of the most highly praised American science fiction novels and post-atomic novels.  There weren't courses in science fiction then, at Knox or almost anywhere else, and certainly not doctoral dissertations, but this novel has since been taught and written about extensively. Re-reading it now, I can see why.

For many readers the world in which the novel takes places is unfamiliar: largely the Roman Catholic Church structure revived out of the ashes of an incinerated civilization and a long Dark Age.  Much of the book takes place in a monastery in the desert Southwest of the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz" which is dedicated to preserving the last fragments of knowledge that survived the destructive frenzy of "the Simplification."  (The desert landscape would become familiar in subsequent apocalyptic novels and movies.)

However, I was familiar with the traditional structure and vocabulary of the Church that dominates this novel, though even by the mid-1960s this was itself changing rapidly.  Miller's future Church for example used Latin, as was traditional until the early 1960s, when the vernacular languages were becoming the official ones.  Most of my education had been in the traditional Church.  For at that time Catholic school students studied the structure, history and government of the Church and Church doctrine at least as intensely as studying the U.S. government and its founding documents and arguments.

Miller's use of this language and institutional structure, right down to the logic of degrees of sin, was elaborate and intricate, even if his purpose was ironic: to show that the response to the post-nuclear Dark Age of the Simplification was identical to the response to the first Dark Ages and barbarian invasions, in which ancient knowledge and literacy itself were preserved by monks in European monasteries.

That humanity managed to start from almost nothing (in the book's first section, the last scraps of technical manuals were completely misunderstood, and turned into holy books) to reinvent science and eventually the nuclear weapons with which it destroys civilization again, did not make me feel my investment in reading the book was immediately rewarded.  Of course this is the essential battle, in science fiction as elsewhere, between the fate of being captive in cycles of self-destruction, and the possibility of learning enough and applying courage to change enough to escape those fatal repetitions.

The book recognizes this, and the religious imagery adds richness to the insight and the ambiguity.  Especially in the middle section, it bears on the role of science, a discussion opened for us in the "two cultures" debate.  Miller places the proto-scientist in the role of Pontius Pilate, who washes his hands of responsibility, while taking his livelihood and power from the rulers he knows are hell-bent towards societal self-destruction.  (There's also a mischievous suggestion that Lazurus, having been raised from the dead by Christ, stays alive forever.)

Ted recommended another book I read that semester. I must have mentioned John Updike's short stories, or perhaps he saw the two volumes I had, The Same Door and Pigeon Feathers. Plus I was eagerly reading Updike's new stories as they came out in the New Yorker.  I hadn't yet read any of his novels (although there were only three by 1964.  Eventually there would be 22.)

Ted recommended Updike's latest novel, The Centaur, which by then was in paperback.  It is the story of a central Pennsylvania small town schoolteacher, told through a particular version of the Chiron myth in Greek mythology.  The teacher, Updike said in his Paris Review interview, is based on his father.

There is a certain magic in the opening scene, in which myth and reality interpenetrate.  There is plenty of the surprising and vivid imagery of everyday life that became associated with Updike.  For instance: "Doc Appleton removed the stethoscope from around his neck and laid it on his desk, where it writhed and then subsided like a slain rubber serpent."  The choice of words and the rhythm of the sentence are part of what made Updike's writing special, and made him a model for me.

I was not yet ready for this book as a whole--as the length and density of A Canticle for Lebowitz also challenged my reading energies and ability to fend off the hormonal impatience of youth long enough to stay in the pages.  But each attempt and each experience helped make the next easier and more natural, and soon I would be shown tools to help me.

I did move on to Updike's second novel and the one that first made him famous, Rabbit, Run.  It was something new, not only to me but to at least popular literature.  For the time it was fast-paced, and used pop culture more readily and effectively than other writers.  Though the present tense became a trademark of the 1980s minimalist fictionists, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run that way in 1960.  By the late 60s, Updike would get a never wholly deserved reputation as a conservative stylist.  But he burst on the scene as something of an experimental writer, and in some ways remained one.

Re-reading Rabbit, Run I was surprised as how tawdry its world and its characters now seemed.  But I do recall that its lovemaking scenes were among the first--if not the very first--that I'd read: somewhat educational and eventually, in part, useful.  As a writer, Updike would continue to be a guidepost for me, especially in the next few years.

I'd also written verse in high school and had been exposed to a range of poets in our literature anthologies.  On my own I had gravitated towards certain poems by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy I found in my uncle's college anthology.

I'm not entirely sure this happened in that first semester, but I'm pretty sure it was Holly Thompson who introduced me to the Selected Poems of  D.H. Lawrence.  I'd read some Lawrence short stories, and would read several of his novels, but I knew nothing of his verse.  Some of it was rhymed but other poems--such as "At A Loose End"--are short, astringent and tersely expressed, more like his prose.  I'd never read poems like that.

Towards the end of that first semester I began seeing Susan Lee Barry. I have fond memories of Sue, as I have of Holly--who were friends with each other and remained so for our allotted four years.  At some point, Sue was the first to explain to me the outline of human evolution--from tiny ground mammals, chased into the trees, and down from the trees again to the savannas.  I remember feeling sad that we ever left the trees.  I feel that even more now.

Fall had for me an unexpected series of events called Rush.  It was the period in which individual fraternities and sororities harvested first year students as new members.  I knew very little about fraternities, beyond the one Ricky Nelson had belonged to on Ozzie and Harriet.  I saw no reason to join one.

But in 1964 the Greek system was particularly controversial.  Stories and letters to the editor in the Knox Student leveled serious criticism, and revealed unappealing hostility from the Greek side.  Though nearly every classmate at Anderson House I knew of was eager to join a fraternity (and I recall being questioned as I showered in the second floor bathroom by a  classmate who couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't join), I soon learned that there were students in classes ahead of ours who were against the Greek system generally, and its influence on the campus.  They were known as Independents, or Indies.

Cecil Steed, Gary McCool
from Knox 1964-65 yearbook
I absorbed their arguments, and began to meet some of them.  Their arguments made sense to me, but the emotional clincher was learning that the the year before, the climactic weekend of Rush had been held as scheduled, even though it was the weekend that President Kennedy was assassinated, mourned and buried.  All of it together made me consciously an Indie.

It was probably then that I met some of the older students who would remain important to me for the rest of the year, and as long as they were there.  I definitely remember Mary Jacobson and Gary McCool (the intellectual Buddy Holly), George Bookless, Jay Matson and Cecil Steed from my first year.  I would get to know others in subsequent semesters.

But I'd already met some other older students, particularly women.  This was the aspect of Knox that was like a sudden Wonderland, an unexpected paradise: all of these lovely and intelligent young women, so varied and so new to my experience, all in one place, and with the relative freedom to see them, speak with them, and walk with them.  Without dreary games or too much self-consciousness.

Even the relative part of that freedom worked to my advantage that year.  This was the era of curfews for women living in dorms, as they were all required to do.  At Knox it was called Women's Hours.  I was among the students who campaigned over the next several years against women's hours, but that year, that semester, they worked to my advantage.

Curfews were staggered, so that on weeknights freshmen women had to be back in Whiting Hall by 11 p.m., sophomores and perhaps juniors had to be in their dorms by 11:30, and seniors by 12.  Or something like that.  So it was possible for me to see three women from different years in a single evening, and walk them each back to their dorm.  And there were evenings when I did just that.

Partly because I was socially and sexually naive and inexperienced,  but mostly because I was fascinated by the opportunity to know these young women without a lot of artificiality,  these exploratory evenings amounted to little more than coffee and conversation in the Gizmo (for instance with classmates Jill Crawford or Kathy Lydigsen, who remained friends in subsequent years), and/or a long walk.  I especially loved the walks.  The freedom and opportunity to walk with a young woman in the night air, along as yet unfamiliar streets and ways, was itself dazzling, especially combined with the charm and beauty of my companions.

I remember a moment, walking with Martha Hoagland--she was from some exotic place like Iowa or Nebraska--and the light on her long hair (unusual that year).   I was fascinated by the hazel eyes of Alix Metcalfe that fall, who left Knox the next year I believe, and who may still be a reader of this blog.

Maybe it was a Knox tradition anyway, since there wasn't a lot to do in Galesburg, but the evening walk became a staple of my social life in later years as well.  I remember walks with Judy Dugan (the wind in the trees in the cemetery), and with Mary Jacobson through Standish Park, and with Sue Werheim on a particularly chilly night, when Mary and Sue were roommates at Williston Hall.

These walks usually happened during the week, and were mostly not "dating."  But if the dorm we walked back to was Whiting Hall, there was the scene at curfew (especially on weekends) that I suspect would be impossible to believably describe to a student today.  The "passion parlor" exhibition of couples necking and writhing on couches (with at least one foot on the floor, that was the rule) while attendants at the front desk impassively ignored it all until closing time, was a shock to me when I first witnessed it, returning Holly or Sue to Whiting.  It was so ridiculous I vowed I would never participate.  But of course, before the year was out, I did.

I'm not sure what my fledgling social life has to do with books, except that it influenced me as a person and therefore as a reader. Books after all were among the topics we talked about. My acquaintances and friendships particularly with these older students did propel me into new experiences (and new reading.)  Books and ideas were at least as important as anything else in all these conversations.  "The college world is unbelievably unlike the real world," I wrote in a letter home.  "No one really has time for anything but honesty."

There are a few more notable memories from that first semester.  Early in the term, I was approached near the Gizmo counter by a skinny stranger, Dave Altman, who ambushed me with the demand, "Say WVKC!"  Somehow I understood the test--it was the proper pronunciation of "W."  I passed the test, and wound up with a radio show, then two, then got into the rotation to read the news for one of the two 15 minute news broadcasts.

This involved ripping news stories off the wire service teletype machine, rudely puncturing them on pegs by category, selecting and assembling them in some sort of priority, and either writing a script--though there usually wasn't time--or just reading them on the air, or improvising a combination.  Eventually I became aware that nobody I knew was actually listening to these broadcasts, and I compensated by doing David Brinkley imitations to amuse myself and the sound engineer.

In November, I participated in the WVKC election coverage, which went on deep into the night. Unfortunately our wire service reports were considerably behind in reporting returns, so much of our news came via Dave Altman, who stood outside in the rain listening to network news on his transistor radio, and ran back in with their new figures.  By midnight we were improvising wildly, and I remember describing western Pennsylvania politics while Mike Bourgo (silently) simulated playing a trombone in a marching band.

At Thanksgiving I was scheduled to help take food and clothing to a couple of former Knox students who were part of the (state of) Mississippi Project to register African American voters--this was just after Freedom Summer.  In the end my place was taken by one of these ex-students who'd returned for a brief visit, and was going back.  I think also they all had second thoughts about a freshman going along in what could potentially be a dangerous situation.  All the other students were seniors.  But they returned without incident.

There was also a tragedy on campus that fall, but I'll try to put it in a different context in a future post.

Meanwhile I was going to concerts and talks, and seeing foreign films and stage plays for pretty much the first time.  The CFA's new Harbach Theatre finally opened in December with Hamlet, starring Jim Eichelburger, directed by Kim Chase.  Who could forget that cast? Among them were history professor Gabe Jackson as a pedantic Polonius,  Russ Irish and Ric Newman as the supercilious Rosencranz and Gildenstern, and David Axlerod as the chatty gravedigger.

I was also learning the skills of being on my own for the first time, such as how to use a laundromat, and iron my own shirts (though I blush to recall I took advantage of Holly's good nature and asked her to iron a few for me.  She did a much better job than I did, though, and I pretty much gave it up. Permanent Press to the rescue!)

In all of this, I also experienced a fair amount of culture shock. The flat midwestern landscape had me yearning for the hills of home.  The continual buzz of campus life was exciting but also exhausting, and at a certain point it got to me that I never had a reliable hour alone.  I needed some quiet.

  A lot that happened was confusing, and despite the constant presence of others and the easy social moments, there were stretches of loneliness.  My feelings towards some back home became more sentimental, and letters were flying back to Pennsylvania, with the replies layering my mail slot outside the bookstore, or dropped on the black table across from the wide first floor stairs at Anderson House.

But I could count on one friendly voice at virtually every meal: a young man in an apron who was sometimes behind the counter serving the food, or who otherwise came around to the tables, and with a hand on my shoulder asked, "How's it going, scholar?"  His name was Ray Gadke.  His gentle, indiscriminate friendliness was odd but often a comfort.

This first semester was in many respects a kind of prologue.  The virtual revolution that constituted my college education began the next semester. For it was that spring that my education took a quantum leap into new worlds--populated with a lot of new books, of course.